It’s commonplace for people to look at teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder and proclaim them the next big thing. A talented, youthful roster and some playoff success often paints a picture of a future that includes Finals appearances and titles; the idea is that if this batch of guys mostly 25 years old and under can put together a deep playoff run, or even just put a scare into an established contender in the early rounds, then the sky must be the limit for them.
As soon as the old lions fade away, the world will be theirs. But if you check the history, this rarely comes to pass. In fact the opposite usually takes place; the precocious bunch that takes the world by storm one year is often disbanded within a few seasons and the franchise that housed them may quickly find themselves back in the lottery. Right now, things look great for the Thunder. Their core seven are all young: Kevin Durant and Westbrook are 22, Serge Ibaka and James Harden are 21, Eric Maynor is 23, and Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins are both 26 years old. They look set to rule the West starting next year while the Lakers and Mavericks stagger into old age, but if history is to judge, don’t bet on it. This has happened plenty of times in the past, and it almost never works out, A few examples:
- Back in 2006 the L. A. Clippers made it to the second round of the playoffs and lost in seven games to the league darling Phoenix Suns. Their roster featured 26 year Elton Brand averaging a career best 24 points per game, a future All-Star starting at center in 23 year old Chris Kaman, and exciting 20 year Shaun Livingston coming off the bench as their point guard of the future, and 26 year old high scoring sixth man Corey Maggette. These players were supplemented by 30 year veteran shooting guard Cuttino Mobley and 36 year point guard Sam Cassell. Everything was in place for big things in the next few years, but the bottom fell out thanks to injuries (Brand and Livingston both blew out their knees; Livingston’s and days as a future star rapidly ended.) , bad signings (Tim Thomas and Baron Davis), and the failure to lure Kobe Bryant away from the Lakers (it actually wasn’t out of the question). Within two years of their impressive showing they were 23-59 and haven’t seen the playoff since.
- In 1998, the New Jersey Nets gave the Chicago Bulls a good fight in the first round of playoffs. They had two good young players in 22 year old Keith Van Horn and 22 year old Kerry Kittles, a trio of 28/29 year olds in Cassell, Jayson Williams, and Kendall Gill, and a second year NBA coach in former UMass head man John Calipari. Slam magazine put them on the cover as a team to watch for. All eyes were on them until Kittles starting getting hurt, Williams suffered a career ending injury, and a 3-17 start doomed Calipari the very next season after their good postseason showing. It took another four years before the Nets saw the playoffs again.
- 1997: Washington Bullets (soon to be the Wizards) fought the Bulls tooth and nail for three games in the first round. Michael Jordan called them a team of the future, and with a core that included two 23 year old All Stars in Chris Webber and Juwan Howard, three 25 year olds in the top six (Calbert Cheaney, Gheorghe Muresan, and Tracy Murray), and young veteran point guard in 30 year old Rod Strickland. A year later they went a disappointing 42-40 and missed the playoffs. Off the court troubles led to Webber being traded out of town, Muresan had to retire due to injuries, and the rest of the team struggled to live up to the promise they once showed. By 1999 they were and 18 win team and didn’t see the playoffs again until 2005.
The seeds of an OKC collapse is already there. Perkins has a knee that is questionable, the on court relationship between Kevin Durant and his high scoring teammates in the backcourt is facing some real tension, and head coach Scott Brooks is facing doubts about his leadership. The potential for a Stephon Marbury-Kevin Garnett style breakup between Durant and Westbrook is very high right now, and should they suffer any kind of setback next season things could go south really quickly. The downside to having so many scoring threats is that they all want to get their shots, and when you have a nice guy like Durant as your star player there’s a lot of room for the sidekicks to run amok and bring the whole team. I’m not saying that it will happen, but it’s definitely a possibility.
So don’t print your 2012 Finals tickets just yet, OKC fans. Your team could make it, but there’s an equal likelihood that 30-52 could be happening soon.